We admit it: When we’re looking for a literary escape, we tend to make a beeline for the fiction stacks and never look back. But that can mean missing out on plenty of books that also have compelling plots and complex characters, which are all the more interesting…because they’re true. Here are our ten favorite nonfiction books that read like novels.

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“The Possessed” by Elif Batuman

“The Possessed” by Elif Batuman

This quirky mash-up of a book (part memoir, part literary criticism) sends readers along with Batuman from Stanford to Switzerland to St. Petersburg as she literally follows in the footsteps of her favorite Russian writers. Batuman’s delightful prose (and a murder mystery at Tolstoy’s winter palace) keep it from feeling dry or academic.

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rules do not apply
“The Rules Do Not Apply” by Ariel Levy

“The Rules Do Not Apply” by Ariel Levy

When journalist Ariel Levy took an assignment in Mongolia, she was married, pregnant and happy. A month later, she was none of those things. She turned her heartbreaking ordeal into an award-winning New Yorker piece, and then into this poignant memoir about picking up the pieces of a broken life.

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cold blood
“In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote

“In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote

Capote’s true-crime masterpiece is often called the first “non-fiction novel,” and with good reason. If you devoured "Serial" or The Jinx, you’ll be riveted by this haunting tale of murder and unlikely friendship.

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just kids
“Just Kids” by Patti Smith

“Just Kids” by Patti Smith

New York in the 1960s NYC was full of art, music, poetry and bohemian spirit. Or, at least, that’s the way it seemed to Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, back when they were just kids. Smith’s remarkable memoir tells their love story, against the backdrop of a gritty city during a magical time.

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“Evicted” by Matthew Desmond

“Evicted” by Matthew Desmond

Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond follows eight families in Milwaukee struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and explains the factors that have led to the housing crisis across the country. It’s not cheerful reading, but it is important, and impossible to put down.

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in the dark room
“In the Darkroom” by Susan Faludi

“In the Darkroom” by Susan Faludi

Journalist and feminist icon Susan Faludi always had a strained relationship with her abusive, estranged father. And it only got more complicated when he called out of the blue to tell her that he had transitioned, and was now living as a woman. Faludi travels to Budapest to visit her father post-surgery, and keeps a riveting travelogue of the very strange trip.

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“Wild” by Cheryl Strayed

“Wild” by Cheryl Strayed

Reeling from the loss of her mother and the end of her marriage, Cheryl Strayed decided to heal by hiking the length of the Pacific Crescent Trail, from the Mexican border through Oregon. It’s an unforgettable journey. As much as we love Reese Witherspoon, the movie version is no match for Strayed’s incredible prose.

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henrietta lacks
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

In 1951, cervical cancer cells were taken from a poor black tobacco farmer named Henrietta Lacks, without her knowledge. The cells became known as HeLa, and were instrumental in countless scientific developments, from the polio vaccine to in vitro fertilization. Meanwhile, Lacks’s family was too poor to pay for health insurance. Skloot’s story is a fascinating portrait of an extraordinary family, as well as a shocking indictment of centuries of scientific exploitation of black communities.

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beautiful forevers
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo spent three years living in a Mumbai slum, in the shadow of the city’s modern international airport and shiny, luxury hotels. She tells the story of its people, especially a teenager named Abdul, who is falsely accused of a terrible crime.

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barbarian days
“Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” by William Finnegan

“Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” by William Finnegan

Admittedly, a surfing memoir isn’t something we ever thought would top our reading lists.  But William Finnegan changed our minds. Raised in California and Hawaii in the heyday of the Beach Boys, Finnegan writes beautifully about his lifelong obsession with the sport and the adventures that he has traveling the world in search of the perfect wave. 

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